"To survive in Hollywood, you need the ambition of a Latin-American revolutionary." —Billie Burke
Most everyone knows Desi Arnaz. That is to say, everyone knows he was the star and executive producer of "I Love Lucy." And anyone who has ever watched the show knows that he was Cuban and a talented musician. But something that not many people know is that Arnaz played a vital part in the set up of the show at a time when the television sitcom was still being molded. Arnaz conceptualized the multi-cam setup used for filming the set, a format that would be used on virtually every sitcom from "Happy Days" to "Full House" to "Friends." Now folks, let's pause, take a breath and consider this fact: A Cuban is responsible for how American sitcoms have been filmed for more than 50 years!
We all know that the United States is forever called a "melting pot" of cultures, and so it should follow that its entertainment industry would reflect this. After all, everyone loves to list with pride the accomplishments that their ethnic group has achieved. But while it's wonderful that Cubans have left their mark in the business, what have they had to give up? How does the media in turn choose to depict Hispanics? And how does skin color come into play?
These are complex issues, and in the next few pages, we will do nothing more than scratch a surface. Certainly, many essays have been written on the Cuban experience and the journey of the exile. And the strange politics of the industry are reflected upon and scrutinized every day on the rough pages of Variety. But this piece will attempt to follow the exiles that have landed in the Emerald City of Hollywood, and look at the perils they have encountered on the yellow-brick road from Cuba. In an industry that has changed both drastically and faintly over the years, there is a Spanish side not often mentioned, and that is one of its many success stories: an American dream lived by Latin Americans.
Let us begin by revisiting this heavily documented experience of the Cuban; indeed, so much has been written about the diaspora that the familiar lamentations have grown stale. Edward Said referred to exile as a "discontinued state of being;" it is not merely a matter of living outside of Cuba, but living after Cuba. Cuba is like a womb in the ocean; a distant but nurturing visceral memory. And to the new generation that has "inherited exile," it is not even a memory but a theory, a pre-established religion. The Old Cuba is dead and lost forever. The island may change and the environment may thrive once more, but it can never be exactly the same, just as children can never regress to the womb. So now Cuba has been turned into a martyr and the children have grown up.
Fortunately, the United States has been good to Cubans, and by absorbing so many immigrant groups over the years, we see the heavily used metaphor of the melting pot in motion. The problem is that so many immigrants do not want their cultures to "melt." Mexico has such a different culture from Puerto Rico, and likewise from Cuba; these groups do not want to be meshed together as one single culture that is viewed by others as "Hispanic" or "brown." In fact, that right there is the origin of the problems that have followed: "being Hispanic" is not a culture; it is many cultures, and now it has become a surrogate culture that stands in for all the others. Americans will differentiate between a European and a Hungarian, but not between a Hispanic and a Mexican.
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